Whatever I'm Thinking

A Ruling Congress

Steve Hayward of AEI and has an excellent piece in today’s PowerLine blog regarding Newt Gingrich, last night’s Presidential debate, and the proper relation between Congress, the Presidency, and the American people.

After a recap of the Presidential debate highlights Steve delves into a deeper consideration of the nature of the office:

Over much of the last generation or two—more or less since Republicans started dominating the presidency starting with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968—conservatives have tended to be president-centric.  This was especially true when Reagan was President, and there was a legitimate reason to resist the many ways in which Congress had aggrandized its power in the aftermath of Watergate.

So by force of habit conservatives have come to rely upon the President to lead their movement. Remember those conservatives who grumbled that G.W. Bush was only “conservative in some areas” but deferred to his policy leadership anyway? Can you say Medicare Part D?

It has not always been so.  Steve goes on:

But once upon a time, 50 years ago or so, many leading conservatives championed Congress as the pre-eminent branch of our government, as the Founders did.  After All, there’s a reason the first article of the Constitution is about Congress, not the President.  Partly this was a reasonable reaction to the liberals who championed the presidency as the institution for transforming America, following the teachings of Woodrow Wilson, the example of Franklin Roosevelt, and the orgasmic promise of John F. Kennedy.  (You think I exaggerate?  In 1961, Herman Finer, a leading political scientist of the time, wrote: “The presidency is the incarnation of the American people, in a sacrament resembling that in which the wafer and the wine are seen to be the body and blood of Christ.”  I would think the ACLU would have a conniption fit over language like this today.)

In 1959, James Burnham, one of the great writers of that first generation of post-war conservatives (his best known book was Suicide of the West), published Congress and the American Tradition, which set out the argument that conservatives should champion a reinvigoration of Congress as a counterweight to the post-Wilson transformative “visionary” presidents.  In making the case for legislative supremacy, Burnham was merely reprising one side of a debate that stretches back to the arguments over the legislative-executive balance of power from the time of the Founding.  Among other things, Burnham argued, there is a difference between a strong president, and a strong presidency.  He was in favor of the former, but skeptical of the latter, in part because he perceived the paradox that attempts to have a strong presidency will actually result in weakening the office.  Cue Barack Obama, the frustrated miracle worker.

I think Hayward’s analysis is spot on. (Read the whole article here.) I’d just like to add my two cents.

As a practical matter advancing the concept of a return to a Ruling Congress might suit the GOP very well. This is because conservatives have a strong Congressional brain trust but a weak field of Presidential candidates.  Paul Ryan understands the Federal budget better than anyone.  Michele Bachmann regularly schools other candidates on the exact Congressional processes needed to repeal Obamacare. Eric Cantor, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and many other GOP “stars” are well-known national names capable of carrying the conservative message through the media and to the general public.

Since future GOP policy leadership will apparently come from its Congressional delegation, why not emphasize that?

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